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Young Hungarian Jews embrace, recast identities

Times Staff Writer

Inside the Siraly coffeehouse in Budapest’s Seventh District, the air is smoky and the tables are crowded with the young, cool and Jewish.

They are sipping creamed coffees and Hungarian merlots, chatting about theater and planning for a Hanukkah that will include music from jazz jams to klezmer and a menorah made from recycled materials. Another evening might feature Hebrew hip-hop, a spirited debate with some of the country’s leading intellectuals. Or an Iranian film.

This is the heart of an unconventional revival of Jewish life that is injecting eclectic energy into the largest Jewish community between Paris and Moscow. With the horrors of the Holocaust and the atheistic sterility of communism now part of a distant past, a new generation of Hungarian Jews is embracing and recasting its Jewish identity, asking questions and posing answers while asserting diversity. Some are teaching their communist-era parents to be believers.

Despite assertions that Jewish communities in Europe are dead or dying, depleted by immigration and drowned by persistent waves of anti-Semitism, Budapest is home to at least 100,000 Jews.

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More Jews survived World War II and stuck around in Hungary than in the rest of Central Europe. Today, the Hungarian capital has bustling synagogues, including the world’s second largest; Jewish schools; Jewish publications; websites and blogs. There has been an explosion in cafes, restaurants and bookstores in the so-called Jewish Triangle, the historic Jewish neighborhoods of the city’s central Seventh District that is undergoing something of a renaissance. There are older Orthodox Jews, middle-aged Neologue Jews (a branch of Judaism indigenous to Hungary) and thousands of secular Jews of all ages.

Finding tradition

Many have been experiencing the rediscovery of faith typical in the former Soviet bloc. Others are creating alternative ways of pursuing, if not the faith, at least some of the traditions and meanings of being a Jew. And they chafe at the staid bureaucracy that has managed formal Jewish affairs in Hungary for years.

“We want to focus on the traditions to re-create a new identity, a new concept of Jewish identity,” said Eszter Susan, 29, one of the people running Siraly. (The coffeehouse’s name means sea gull in Hungarian.)

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“We are Jewish and it’s nothing to hide,” she said, speaking over the noise that bounced off walls covered with posters and abstract paintings.

Like many Hungarian Jews of her generation, she grew up with a vague notion she was Jewish, though not really what that meant.

Adam Schoenberger, who opened the rambling, three-story Siraly last year, said he was casting about for “points of access” for young Jews who, like him, found synagogues with aging congregations to be less than inviting.

“We are trying to change things,” said Schoenberger, a wiry man of 27. “We are asking the questions: Who is a Jew and what does that mean?

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“We are here. We are alive. We are cool.”

Similar motivation led blogger Bruno Bitter, 31, to found the wildly popular website and social network known as judapest.org. He took the name from an anti-Semitic reference made by a Viennese mayor a century ago, turned it on its head and converted it into something positive, he says.

“I wanted to change the rules and the context of being Jewish in Hungary,” Bitter said by e-mail. “I wanted to take ‘Jewishness’ out of all its negative contexts (like anti-Semitism, the Holocaust or the Middle East conflict).”

A key reason the Jewish community in Budapest has the luxury to flourish and experiment is sheer numbers, said Edward Serotta, head of the Vienna-based Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation, which is collecting the history of Jewish life in Europe from the last century.

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Jews were exterminated throughout the Hungarian countryside in World War II, but many were spared in Budapest, faring better than in most neighboring countries. And Hungarian communism was less repressive than in other places, allowing the Soviet bloc’s only rabbinical seminary to operate.

But only after the fall of communism in 1989 did many Hungarian Jews begin to return to their faith, a process often led by the young.

At their second-floor walk-up in the Seventh District, four generations of the Sardi family come together on a Friday evening for Shabbat dinner and the lighting of candles.

Renewed faith

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Dora Sardi, 33, a historian, has reinvigorated faithful observance in the family. Her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, felt it necessary to repress his faith; his son, Dora’s father, wanted nothing to do with religion. It was an era when many Hungarian Jews changed their last names, stopped speaking Yiddish, dropped holidays.

“My mother was educated by her grandmother, so she knew a little more about the traditions. But my father didn’t want to hear about it,” Dora Sardi said. “We celebrated Christmas for a few years, and then nothing at all for several years.

“Slowly, slowly, we are finding the way back.”

Her father, Gyula Sardi, 60, said he always knew he was a Jew, “but it was a kind of secret.”

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Wearing an oversized white-silk yarmulke, Gyula found it somewhat amusing that it is his daughter now teaching him how to worship.

“To have this from your children is unusual,” he said. “Usually the parents give religion to the child, not the other way around. We inherited it from our children.”

The patriarch, 94-year-old Fulop Sardi, was condemned to a wartime forced-labor brigade, a fate shared by tens of thousands of male Hungarian Jews, but he survived. Fulop Sardi, who changed his name from Steiner in 1946, only began talking about the Holocaust in the last 10 to 15 years

His eyes twinkle at the Shabbat ceremony, especially as he watches his great-grandchildren gather around silver candlesticks for the blessing.

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“I am more active now than as a youth,” he said. “And it is even better now, because where it used to be an obligation, now it is a pleasure.”

The traditions have jumped generations: Dora’s grandfather had a bris and bar mitzvah, but neither her father nor her brother did; her 7-year-old son had a bris, is studying Torah and will have a bar mitzvah.

Dora’s husband, Mate Gaspar, is more pessimistic about the revival of Jewish life here.

“It’s too late,” Gaspar, a theatrical director, said. “The roots are not there anymore; it’s lost its context.”

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He also believes anti-Semitism is ingrained in so many Hungarians, with the history of the Holocaust still not confronted, that Jews can once again become scapegoats in any disaster or national misfortune. “If they look for an enemy, they will say ‘the Jews,’ ” he said. “The reflex is still there.”

For many young Jews, rediscovering their faith has been helped along by a visit to Israel, though, significantly, not a decision to remain there. Schoenberger, the Siraly manager, said he enjoyed living in Israel but he felt he belonged in Hungary. “The best thing I can do is live in Hungary with my full identity,” he said. “I can be a whole person here. I don’t have to go to another country” to live a Jewish life.

Some question, however, whether a Jewish identity based on cultural and intellectual pursuits, and not on religion, isn’t hollow. Is it sustainable in the long term?

About ‘Jewishness’

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“This is about Jewishness more than Judaism,” said Ruth Ellen Gruber, an expert on European Jewry and author of “Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe.” “I don’t know if something called Judaism can survive if all it is is a vague sense of intellectual attitude. They’re going to have to figure that out.”

Still, no one disputes the vast changes and potential.

Budapest is the site of the largest of 40 schools set up across Europe by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation aimed at promoting Jewish identity. At the Lauder Javne School in the western suburbs of Budapest, kindergartners played in the snow during recess on a recent day while older kids prepared Hanukkah decorations. In an English class, they learned words from the holiday, such as “miracle.”

When the school opened in 1990, Principal Anna Szeszler held the first staff meeting in her kitchen with five teachers. Today, there are 70 full- and part-time teachers, 600 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, and a long waiting list.

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Jewish studies and Hebrew are required courses up to the ninth grade, but the student body includes Jews and non-Jews.

Rather than “force” tradition on the children, Szeszler said, the school tries to show pupils how to enjoy it, convinced that will be the best way to attract them to Jewish life.

“The next generation,” she said, “will be involved more easily. It takes time and you have to keep going.”

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

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